“The government convenes the greatest highway bidding in the country’s history.” That announcement in Lima newspapers in March 1964 presented the Tarapoto-Río Nieva road to the public in a fashion typical of development boosterism—brash, bold, and only partially true. Tarapoto, nestled as it was in the remotest corner of the Huancabamba Depression, was only reachable by air on its western approach, and the new highway promised at last to connect coastal markets with the vast arable lands of the Huallaga Valley. The Huallaga, a diverse and dynamic area of the Western Amazon, was the site of rich, transnational imaginings for a host of actors ranging from national planners and global construction giants, to early climate scientists, campesinos and cocaine cartels. The highway was the lynchpin in President Fernando Belaúnde Terry’s pet project, the Carretera Marginal de la Selva, which enlisted Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia in a quixotic enterprise aimed at colonizing the eastern Andean flank through one vast road network. Billed as a response to worries of demographic explosion and concentrated land ownership, politicians and international boosters resorted to racial and gender imaginaries to tout La Marginal as a crucial motor of economic growth and regional interdependence that hinged specifically on exploitation of the subtropical dry forests that dotted valleys like the Huallaga. La Marginal represented the reigning development doctrine’s imposition on the Huallaga landscape and a critical component of its construction was a scientific appropriation of the region’s socio-ecological realities. One phenomenon that fed this boom in Huallaga development was the early introduction and utilization of aviation as a means of transport and study.
I’ve got to admit I feel slightly mistreated. If you want to know the basic argument of Mosquito Empires read this, because it is little more than an elaborated version of what McNeill has already said. However, McNeil’s elaborations tend to mean more breadth, not more depth. Thus, despite his protest to the contrary I have to say his formulaic approach to geopolitical events can be reduced to mosquito determinism. (compare p. 6 with p. 234) And my qualms with his framework—namely, his belief in the power of stats and his unwillingness to explore the cultural components of individual stories—remain strong.
He deals with the same cases: Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, Surinam and the revolution in Nueva Granada. But he also expands his scope, exploring the “greater Caribbean.” Most notably, he recounts the case of the southern colonies during the American Revolution, where the creole ecology that emerged was generated by the rice economy—not sugar—but the outcome was the same nonetheless: the local combatants, armed with malaria resistance, were able to besiege Cornwallis’ beleaguered forces at Yorktown until the French could intervene. While McNeill is still very much enamored of sieges and stand-offs, he also includes episodes of settlement deterred when he examines the disasters of the Scots in the Darien (1698) and the French in French Guyana (Kourou, 1763).
Grove, Richard. Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996.
Grove gives an account of the rise of early environmentalism as a corollary to the maritime colonial expansion that began in the late fifteenth century. His focus is on the importance marked by islands, not only in the spread of the Portuguese, Dutch and English empires, but also as symbolic and practical manifestations of the possible course of human-triggered ecological change.
Grove’s periodization ranges broadly from Ancient Greece—with Theophrastus’ linking of climate alterations and deforestation— to the rise of capitalist modes of production and to Worster’s post-Romantic imperialist scientists in the mid nineteenth century. More specifically, he concentrates on the period between 1660 and 1860, marking 1700 as a crucial turning point when observation of environmental decline was turned into conservationist policies based on scientific theories of environmental decline and climate change. During this period he focuses on the expansion of the Dutch, French and British empires, particularly as regards the measures taken by colonial governments anf the English and Dutch East India companies in India, St Helena, Mauritius and the Eastern Carribbean.
Squeezed within a World System frame, Grove highlights the interplay between various poles: the Humanist vision of writers like Daniel Defoe or that Edenic portrayals of island paradises and the dessicationist theories of an emerging scientific elite; that scientific elite as opposed to the colonial state; the policy of the metropole and the resistance posed by the periphery; etc.
Fagan, Brian. The Little Ice Age; How Climate Made History 1300-1850. 2000.
Chapter One: The Medieval Warm Period
This section follows a trajectory of climate to culture, tracing the cultural expansion that climate sparked in the period between roughly 800 and 1200 A.D. On the one hand, with receding ice flows in the tenth-century North Atlantic, explorers such as Eirick the Red (Greenland ) and his son, Leif Eirickson (Labrador), were able to traverse the seas, aiding the spread of Norse hegemony. On the other hand, warmer climate allowed for increased agricultural output across Europe, which, in turn, translated to greater concentrations of wealth and the construction of monumental testaments to cultural growth such as cathedrals.
Chapter Two: The Great Famine
Following a similar trajectory, this chapter begins with a description of the roles played by the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) index and downwelling phenomena in dictating Europe’s climatic conditions.
1. NAO high = low pressure systems over Iceland / high pressure off Portugal = warmer climate for Europe;
2. NAO low = pressure systems reversed = cold Europe;
3. Fast downwelling = faster /warmer Atlantic current = warmer climate for Europe;
4. Slow downwelling = slower / colder current = cold Europe
The chapter situates us in the period of high NAO index between 1315 and 1322, when extraordinary rains devastated crops and lead to severe famine. We are led through the resulting socio-economic turmoil—huge influence on military campaigns: the Flemings beating off French Louis X, the Scotts resisting Edward II; reduction of cultivatable land, abandonment of rural towns, etc.—and the chapter finishes with a discussion of how the famine was construed as divine punishment and how this influenced a sizable spike in revenue for Canterbury priory.